Kolkata: From poet to political pawn—that’s what Rabindranath Tagore, India’s most celebrated writer, could turn into ahead of his 150th birth anniversary next year.
It started with railway minister Mamata Banerjee, who also heads West Bengal’s main opposition party Trinamool Congress, announcing in the rail budget for 2010-11 the launch of new train services, including one to Bangladesh, and two museums to commemorate Tagore’s works. Even the new train service to popular pilgrimages called Bharat Tirtha has been named after a famous poem by Tagore.
To steal the thunder from Banerjee’s campaign, the West Bengal government, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, announced a slew of initiatives riding on the bard’s legacy, including a Rs600 crore rural development project named after him—Rabindra Gram Bikas Prakalpa.
Interestingly, this is the first state government project in West Bengal that has been named after the poet, who, according to Trinamool Congress supporters such as painter Shuvaprasanna (who uses only one name), has always been seen by the CPM as a “bourgeois poet”.
It isn’t surprising, though, as both the CPM and the Trinamool Congress are bracing for the 80-odd civic body elections in the state this year and the crucial assembly elections next year, and neither can afford to ignore the iconic poet’s 150th birth anniversary. So celebrations are starting early and on a grand scale.
Political pawn: The Trinamool Congress says it will set up two Tagore museums; the CPM has launched a development project named after him. AFP
“These are desperate attempts by two warring political parties to show their love and respect for Tagore, who is still worshipped like God in most Bengali homes,” said Debnath Bandyopadhyay, former director at Tagore Centre in Kolkata’s Rabindra Bharati University.
Besides launching a rural development project named after Tagore, the state government has also allocated Rs15 crore for the revamp of Nimtala Mahashashan, the crematorium in Kolkata where he was cremated, Rs50 lakh for year-long celebrations and at least Rs25 lakh for giving Bichitra Bhaban, Tagore’s home in Jorasanko in north Kolkata, a facelift.
“Naming projects after great men is common practice,” said Anisur Rahaman, West Bengal’s minister for panchayat and rural development, referring to the Rabindra Gram Bikas Prakalpa, which he announced within a week of Banerjee’s announcement of budget proposals. “There is no politics behind it,” Rahaman added.
But an official in his department said, “There’s nothing new in deploying funds for village development. We have just given it a name,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Expressing doubts about the end use of such “untied funds”, he said, “Under such schemes, the money could be spent for anything that the local administration thinks best—from buying textbooks for schoolchildren to building health centres. I am not sure how much money actually goes into creating social infrastructure.”
Banerjee’s close aide Shuvaprasanna, who now heads the railways’ passenger amenities committee, said the ministry was planning year-long celebrations aimed at improving people’s awareness about the great poet. “It will cover all aspects of his life, not just his works,” he added.
It is in line with this principle that the ministry has decided to launch two museums— one at Howrah station in Kolkata and the other at Shantiniketan, where Tagore founded Visva Bharati University.
Besides launching a new Kolkata-Dhaka train service, the ministry is also planning “cultural exchange” with Bangladesh, where Tagore is almost as popular as he is in West Bengal, Shuvaprasanna added. The national anthem that Bangladesh adopted also happens to be written by Tagore.
If the Trinamool is planning “cultural exchange” with Dhaka, West Bengal’s youth affairs department is extending support to a private company to organize a car rally to Shilaidaha in Bangladesh where Tagore spent a substantial part of his life.
“On his 125th birth anniversary, we had organized a car rally from Kolkata to Shantiniketan,” said Kanti Ganguly, West Bengal’s minister for youth affairs. “This time, we have chosen a destination across the border.”